Commentary: Liu Xiaobo's Vision

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Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2010) Commentary: Liu Xiaobo's Vision, The Foreigner [Online News Service], 20 August 2010.

Is there a connection between peace, democracy, and human rights, as the Nobel Committee claims?

In its justification for awarding this year’s Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee highlights that Liu Xiaobo has had a long-lasting and non-violent commitment to human rights in his home country of China. The commentators have, to a large degree, focused on the fight for human rights and democracy. In addition, the committee’s reasoning also emphasises that acceptance for political and societal change takes time.

Liu Xiaobo is primarily acknowledged as the main architect of the so-called Charter 08, a programme for the gradual democratisation of China. 303 people, including authors, intellectuals, business people, and retired Party functionaries have signed the manifest. It is modelled on the Czechoslovakian Charter 77, which led, amongst other things, to Vaclav Havel’s arrest. Amongst several confirmed nominators of Liu, is also one signed by a group of former Charter 77 activists, including Mr Havel.

However, 55-year-old Liu Xiaobo has a long history as a champion of human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy. Liu was at New York’s Columbia University at the beginning of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He hurried to Beijing, where he joined the demonstrators’ ranks. Liu spoke in favour of an orderly easing of the protests, after it gradually seemed clear a confrontation with the authorities was approaching. The alternative would have been loss of life, he thought.

It is here we hear the chime of Liu’s non-violent thinking and practice. Those who know him allege his experiences of the 1989 riots have made Liu Xiaobo more cautious. He has increasingly made himself a spokesperson for patient reform work. I cannot see that Liu has a clearly stated, non-violent ideology. Nevertheless, the Nobel Committee has chosen to spotlight this aspect in their justification for the award. It is here we find an important admission: non-violence does not necessarily presuppose principled pacifism. It is, rather, that every political movement, as well as all those who challenge an established political order, face a choice regarding whether to use violence or not. The transition from peaceful to violent means can be gradual. Non-violence was a firm part of the Nobel Peace Prize’s history during awards of the 1900s, but has subsequently played less of a central role. It is worth noting the committee’s emphasis on non-violence.

A broadly defined human rights platform is also central to Liu’s work. Such a broad understanding closely links human rights with freedom of expression and democracy. Peace research increasingly emphasises the connection between human rights and democracy on the one hand and peace on the other. In its most basic form, we see that breaches of human rights are usually an early warning of armed conflict. One example is Uganda where, in retrospect, serious attacks have appeared at the beginning of a savage war.

That the Peace Prize rewards human rights activists is nothing new. This has been a central issue for the last 50 years since South Africa’s Albert Luthuli was awarded the prize in 1960. Andrei Sakharov, Eli Wiesel, Mother Theresa, and Shirin Ebadi are other central examples.

In present times, we surround ourselves with an ever-increasingly expanded concept of peace. Living in peace is not just living without armed conflict, but existing within a society where one is free, with possibilities to assert one’s opinions and pursue one's interests. An understanding of the concept of security has changed in parallel. Where one spoke about safety as the state’s need for physical security twenty years ago, today, one speaks of the individual and its needs within a broad spectrum.

Charter 08 goes on to address the sharing of power. It is about power sharing on two axes. The one axis is central, and here we are talking about how executive, legislative, and judicial power must be separated from each other. In a modern democracy, such a division of power is seen as a prerequisite to preventing an abuse of power directed towards individuals and groups. Here also lie fundamental rights. Many will claim democracy will remain far too vulnerable without legal safeguards, freedom of speech, and the right to private property.

However, the Chinese reform charter goes even further. It aims at a decentralisation of power. China is a state with 1.3 billion inhabitants – a fifth of the world’s population – but remains relatively centralised governance. The aim of those who have signed Charter 08 is a geographical division of power such as exists in the USA or Germany, where individual states have a considerable degree of self-governance, with their own laws and institutions, as well as local control of resources. China consists of a large majority and many minorities, and has chosen a strongly centralised governance. The question is as to whether this is the best model if one is to secure the population’s welfare and prevent a future armed conflict.

The Chinese leadership of today obviously believes this, and the principles of Charter 08 are regarded as a possible threat to stability. As a continuation of this, the government in Beijing has clearly expressed that the award will have consequences, not just for its relations with the Nobel Committee, but also for China’s relations with Norway. On its side, the Nobel Committee defends its independence, and takes no responsibility for the possible consequences for Norwegian-Chinese relations.

It is easy to understand the Chinese government, who feels it receives little credit for the country’s progress, for example by having lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The Nobel Prize could then easily be regarded as yet another arrogant greeting from the West. However, read in a more sympathetic manner, the prize raises fundamental links between peace, rights, and democracy. Let us hope it is dialogue on these fundamental connections that prevails.


Kristian Berg Harpviken, Director PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo).
First printed in Dagbladet 08.10.10.
Reproduced and translated with kind permission.

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Kristian Berg Harpviken

Kristian Berg Harpviken

PRIO Director